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How better communication can drive better health

Originally published in The Tennessean, December 2022

As a doctor, I know the vast majority of health care providers strive to balance their workload while connecting with each patient and ensuring they receive quality care. Still, many patients have likely had an experience where they were confused by the information being shared, unsure of their next steps, or wanting more time with the provider.

Health literacy is a less-obvious factor that can contribute to feeling out of control when managing our health or being unsure of how well we can face a tough diagnosis.

What is health literacy?

The phrase “health literacy” describes a person’s ability to seek, comprehend and effectively use information when making decisions about their health care. Unfortunately, not everyone has this ability. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly 9 out of 10 Americans have limited health literacy.

Health literacy is a social driver of health, and our health literacy level affects how well we care for ourselves and our loved ones. 

If we have limited understanding of our medical concerns, their implications and our treatment options, we might not participate in making decisions about our own care. Or we might not comply with the plan of care or treatment our doctors help create.

That puts our health at further risk and can lead to more ER visits and hospital stays.

Health literacy can be affected by:

  • Age
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Primary language
  • Life experiences
  • Illnesses or conditions requiring complex management

Many people struggle with several of these factors at the same time. Consider this story of a non-English-speaking mother from an East African country who’d moved to Tennessee. A BlueCare case manager, partnered with a translator provided by BlueCare, were in frequent communication with this member as the family had social and medical needs. Through our translator, the case manager asked: “What if we found a way for you to learn English so you could have an easier time navigating your children’s needs?”

The mother agreed, and the case manager connected her with an agency that provided English classes. This assistance from our case manager also served as the friendly nudge the member needed to learn to advocate for herself and bridge a gap to her health literacy.

I share this story not to imply that health literacy is simply about language barriers. Rather, it shows how our case managers, social workers and translators engage with members to help them become advocates for their own health.  BlueCare helps its members negotiate the health care system with health navigators, text messaging, and a language line.

Making the extra effort

Many health care professionals are improving their communication with patients in an effort to help boost health literacy.

Medical jargon was once thought of as precise, but too often that language can be difficult for patients to understand.

The Teach Back Method, which involves presenting information to a patient in a succinct way, then asking the patient to repeat it back, is gaining popularity among providers. Some doctors are also offering more opportunities for patients to ask questions, too.

My clinical experience taught me how people can improve their health literacy: Speak up if you don’t understand something that your doctor or nurse is telling you,  volunteer to repeat information back to your provider, write down instructions, or bring a loved one with you to an appointment if you’re anxious about retaining information.

Beyond insurers and providers, we must all help address health literacy as a social driver of health. It’s one of the focus areas BlueCross has in our report on health equity in Tennessee.

Improving health literacy could reduce hospital visits significantly. But more importantly, helping our members and communities understand health literacy and become advocates for themselves will bring us that much closer to equitable access to quality care for all Tennesseans.

About Dr. Sharon Moore-Caldwell, Medical Director, BlueCare Tennessee

A photo of the authorSharon Moore-Caldwell, M.D./M.Div, is a medical director for BlueCare Tennessee, a subsidiary of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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